Irene Lusztig’s Richland is a stirring and sober portrait of a town caught up in its own complicated history. An immersive documentary that leaves you deep in thought about how you would be as a resident.
In 1943, the US government took over a rural area in Washington state to build the power plant that would produce the plutonium used in the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. Richland was the town that accommodated many of the plant’s workers. Today, the local population is divided by pride and ambivalence when it comes to Richland’s past. While some strive for reconciliation with those directly affected, others are proud of the town’s history, the jobs created by the project and the symbol of strength that it projected to the world.
Irene Lusztig has created an important documentary here with Richland that shows how emotionally complex humans can be, living in that horrible shade of grey, where they understand the damage that was done to Nagasaki. Yet also have reasoning and excuses lined up behind it to show that what they and/or their family worked on had a resolute and important purpose. It is in this narrative that Richland becomes fascinating.
When Lusztig cuts to the school, we are suddenly confronted with the school emblems and teams’ names. You are literally slacked-jawed at what you see. The bombers with literal planes and mushroom clouds are clad all over the clothing of students and alumni, which verges on the absurd, continuing for the rest of Richland. In one scene, we even have a group of students sitting around in a circle discussing how terrible it is that the school still has these symbols of the town’s past everywhere while they are wearing the school jumper with the letter R designed in front of one of the mushroom clouds.
You greatly question how people could be okay with such iconography everywhere in their town. Irene Lusztig does as solid a job at remaining as neutral as possible; she isn’t here to judge those who celebrate the town’s past and push them to rethink. She allows the subjects to become comfortable, allowing Lusztig to get some quality insights. Some moments catch you off guard with how open the residents are. With one former teacher talking about being part of a group that once thought about removing the cloud from the school’s emblem, their conversation ends with him going off on a monologue about how people now were rich in the 1800s in America, that they would have slaves. As if that wasn’t satire enough of a moment, his interview is interlaced with a woman unloading freshly made doughnuts onto the shelves.
Lusztig spins a strong story that could have easily gone the chronological route but instead just glides from topic to topic with natural jumping points placed throughout. This calm filmmaking lures you in, in an almost haunting way. People here are either thinking of the ghosts that came before them, family or friends that died too young from radiation poisoning or the materials made in those reactors. Only towards the end of Richland does Lusztig allow us to think about those affected now and their present situation. Those high schoolers are thinking about how it makes them feel in the present; the Indigenous tribe chief is thinking of the younger generations of his tribe returning to the land that should be theirs by right. Soon the reasoning about being proud of the history of Richland and Hanford eases away, and the desperate yearning to be a town more than what came before it for 40 years grows.
When the daughter of a metal handler regales about how her dad went in to get objects in the worst conditions inside the plant while unknowingly exposing himself to probably ungodly levels of radioactive poisoning, solely for a few extra dollars to feed his family. You realise how people were lied to in such an underhanded manner. We see the graves of multiple babies from the 1940s who never got to have a life purely because of where they were born. People were paid off for getting cancer from the plant but never issued an apology; it is just so grim that you can scarcely believe it.
The sombre nature of Richland is what grabs you throughout. There is no anger from those affected, be it like the lady in the previous paragraph, nor a large celebration other than in the town’s museums of the town’s history. Some residents are proud of what their family did to help their country, proud that their town helped end WWII; as a resident states, they are “Proud of the Cloud”. The townsfolk have, for the majority, come to terms with their and the town’s situation. Are they merely holding on until the two older generations phase out before they begin to brand anew? Who knows, but this placid nature is rife all over the town.
Richland gives us a glimpse at a town that we could be forgiven for forgetting about in the annals of history. Many worldwide have been and are still affected by what was built in this little town in the vastness of Washington state; Lusztig just expertly shows us the human side of it all.
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